Arsenal coaching and playing staff have (allegedly) been employing body language strategies in which to communicate with Brazilian central defender Gabriel Paulista*, who doesn’t currently speak any English.  This isn’t necessarily a new or innovative practice – if anything, the use of gestural phrases in football is innate; a universal constant demonstrated at all levels of the game.  Indeed, the accepted universal language of signals from officials in football (perhaps more so in the example of cricket) demonstrates best practice in portraying a clear, easily understandable message, not open to misinterpretation.  It is this relationship between actions and words which can benefit a player in Gabriel’s daunting position.

(This example of the great Pierluigi Collina presents the man as conductor of the action played out on the pitch)

Body language – or paralinguistics – is of great benefit in the acquisition of a second language.  It can act as a guide to better illustrate a point being made by an individual; for example, on the football pitch, if a player claims they took the ball in a tackle, they may make rounded gestures with their hands to emphasise the point.  While such actions may ultimately prove unsuccessful in persuading a referee on the validity of a challenge, it demonstrates how important body language is for non-English speaking footballers who can’t rely on the Terry-Thomas levels of diction normally evidenced by their native speaking teammates.

Over the hills and far away, Manchester City come to play…

The increase in foreign footballers into the British leagues means there is greater importance in providing a common tongue amongst changing rooms resembling the Tower of Babel.  While rumours of non-English speaking players at Manchester City watching CBeebies programmes as part of their tuition may sound facetious, the fundamental building blocks of language acquisition are present, such as the introduction of visual cues for nouns and verb phrases. More traditional initiatives are currently in action from both the Oxford University Press and the British Council, in conjunction with the Premier League, toward the teaching of English to foreign footballers.  All such methods, however, can be distilled neatly into a relationship between the physical nature of body language acting as a point of reference for the abstract nature of spoken or written language.

Carlos Tevez or Carl Teaves?

While Gabriel would surely benefit from learning English, there are plenty of professionals who have come to England and excelled despite never fully acquiring the language**. Carlos Tevez comes to mind immediately; despite an initially difficult start at West Ham, his form toward the end of his first season was carried into his time spent across both halves of Manchester.  His acquisition of English may have been a lot slower than some of his peers but, ultimately, as long as he could understand basic spoken commands and follow paralinguistic gestures, his innate footballing skill would easily do the rest.  This further indicates universality to the language of football that goes beyond the mere spoken and written nature of an individual’s native tongue.

(To his credit, Tevez has a jolly good stab at speaking English)

Gabriel is Saussure of success

The father of modern linguistics, Ferdinand de Saussure, originated the distinction between language as an abstract concept (“langue”) and the concrete form of speech acts made by an individual (“parole”).  In the case of Gabriel and countless many other fellow professionals, while the parole of their English-speaking teammates is incomprehensible, the langue of football is something universally understood.  As the old cliche goes, Gabriel must merely let his feet do the talking, in order to succeed.


*Apologies for using the Express as a source; they REALLY like USING full caps IN their headLINES

**Some of the footballers listed after the jump stretch the definition of ‘excelled’ somewhat…